Leylah Fernandez's rise to stardom
  | By Brian Coleman
Leylah Fernandez hoists her runner-up trophy at the 2021 U.S. Open.
Photo Credit: Pete Staples/USTA

 

This story first appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of New York Tennis Magazine. Click Here to read the full digital edition


New York City is truly the place where dreams come true. The world’s beacon of opportunity, which inspires millions to make the pilgrimage in hopes of making it big in their chosen field, also frequently gives us sports fans some of the best moments we could ask for.

That was evident earlier this fall at the 2021 U.S. Open, where a pair of teenagers stole the hearts of tennis fans, and captivated the sports world. Emma Raducanu of Great Britain and Leylah Fernandez of Canada compiled truly spectacular runs in Queens, forging paths that intersected in the championship match on center court in Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Unfortunately for Fernandez, it would be Raducanu who came away victorious, leaving the Canadian on the runner-up stage. “Right now, it hasn’t sunk in,” she said afterwards. “I am still disappointed. I think this loss, I’m going to carry it for a very long time. I think it will motivate me to do better in training, better for the next opportunity I get.”

She added:

“But I’m very happy with myself, with the way I competed, the way I played, and the way I acted on court the past two weeks,” she said. “I’ve improved a lot, not only tennis-wise, but emotionally and mentally. I’m happy. Next year, hopefully, will be just as good.”

Fernandez’s run to the U.S. Open seemingly came out of nowhere as the 19-year-old had been playing up-and-down tennis in the events leading up to New York. But when the lights shined brightest, Fernandez elevated her game, and took out some top-flight competition en route to the U.S. Open final.

That run included three-set victories over Naomi Osaka, Angelique Kerber, Elina Svitolina and Aryna Sabalenka, a list that featured three of the event’s Top 5 seeds and a three-time Grand Slam champion in Kerber.


“I think one word that really stuck with me is ‘magical’, because not only is my run really good, but also the way I’m playing right now,” she said after defeating Sabalenka in the semifinals. “I’m just having fun, I’m trying to produce something for the crowd to enjoy. I’m glad that whatever I’m doing on court, the fans are loving it, and I’m loving it too.”

While Fernandez’s performance in Queens may have been a surprise to many, it was not to her, or the people around her who knows just how hard she has worked, and just how talented she is.

Fernandez was born in Quebec, Canada, to an Ecuadorian father and Filipino-Canadian mother, with the former being a professional soccer player, so athletics were something that was always prevalent in her life. Her father was a major inspiration for her growing up, and was a key factor in the work ethic she developed.

“My dad would tell me all the time there is no limit to my potential,” she recalls. “Every day, we just got to keep working hard, we got to keep going for it. Nothing’s impossible. There is no limit to what I can do.”

That work ethic helped guide her through the junior ranks, and she even had a little extra fuel added to her fire, thanks in part to “advice” from a teacher she had in school, which was probably well-intentioned, but only motivated her more.

“I think the obvious one is that a lot of people doubted me, my family and my dreams,” said Fernandez. “They kept saying no, that I’m not going to be a professional tennis player, that I should stop and just pursue going to school...I remember one teacher—which is actually very funny, at the time wasn’t, but now I’m laughing—she had told me to stop playing tennis, you will never make it, and just focus on school.”


Fernandez looks back on that memory fondly—now—and says she constantly repeats that story in her head each day, helping to manifest that extra motivation, or that additional ounce of energy to power through a training session or practice:

“I’m going to push through, and I’m going to prove to her that everything I’ve dreamed of I’m going to achieve.”

Not only were there people doubting whether or not she could play professional tennis, Fernandez did not have the typical upbringing and resources of a top junior player. When she was younger, because the family’s finances were tight, her mother went to California for a couple of years to work in order to support not only Leylah’s tennis, but her two sisters, Bianca and Jodeci as well.

“Those few years were definitely hard for me, because I needed a mom,” she said. “I needed someone to be there for me throughout the ages of 10 to 13. I barely saw her during that time. Every time I would see her, it was like seeing a stranger, but at the same time someone so familiar.”

As you’d expect, a separation like that is difficult on a young child, and, for better or worse, it forced Fernandez to mature at a young age. She would train on court with the idea in her head being to make something of herself and become a professional, so that her mother would not have to work in the United States and be away from family again.

“It was definitely hard at first to accept,” Fernandez said. “But every time that I was on court when I was younger, when that happened, I had that focus, that mentality saying that I’m going to do everything in my power to achieve my dreams...so that we can be together again. It made me stronger. I think it made my family stronger too, making that sacrifice and believing it was worth it so I can make that dream possible. I’m just eternally grateful for everything that’s happened to us.”

Fair or not, the upbringing has forged a true fighter in Fernandez, and that is evident if you watch her play. At the U.S. Open, she twice came back from a set down to win, and overcame so many great players and difficult moments to reach the finals.

Much to her delight, in the stands to witness her two-week run in New York was her mother, along with her whole family, which provided unforgettable memories for the young star.

“I was just very lucky to have my mom here at this tournament cheering for me, and having fun with me all this time,” Fernandez said after reaching the U.S. Open finals. “But we’ve gone through so many things together as a family. I’m just glad that right now everything’s going on our side.”

Fernandez’s hard-work and the dedication of her parents have paid off, and things are now indeed trending upwards for their family. Her upbringing and obstacles she has faced has forged an incredible mentality and toughness inside of her, and for someone who is still so young, she has a bright head on her shoulders. Her defeat in the U.S. Open final is only the latest obstacle she has faced, and if her past history is any guide, she will only use it as more motivation, and extra fuel to continue getting better.

“I’m very lucky to have a great support team, and a great family to keep me grounded,” she said after losing in the finals. “This loss today, it definitely stings, but it will just make me want to work harder and stronger, and just come back to every tournament with the same hunger that I came into this tournament with.”


 

Brian Coleman

 Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at brianc@usptennis.com